Meeting Monsieur Andre - Mid-winter across Europe - CycleBlaze

January 6, 2007

Meeting Monsieur Andre

Compiègne, Choisy-au-Bac, Armistice site, Rethondes, Pierrefonds, Villers-Cotterets

I got to Compiègne by the road that runs through the forest. It was dark and it was rush hour, which were plenty enough reasons to avoid the route nationale which made the same journey in a few kilometres less.

Unfortunately, while I could ride quite well through the rainy night with my fading front light, the anaemic beam that it threw would scarcely have made an ant blink and did nothing to stop oncoming drivers from dazzling me with their undipped lights.

There's not much to Compiègne and I wouldn't suggest you go there, other than perhaps to see the clearing in the forest where the Armistice was signed in 1918. Maréchal Foch had his railway carriage there, the one he used as his mobile office to supervise the overall conduct of the war, and that was where he called the German generals to sign on the dotted line.

When another German leader turned up in less submissive mood 22 years later, he ordered the railway carriage to be taken to Germany and then destroyed. Symbolism was everything to a nation which adopted the swastika as its legend.

I went to the site hoping to see the copy of the carriage and to visit the museum, but the first wasn't there and the second was closed for lunch.

The main reason for being in Compiègne, however, was more successful. I had arranged to see a man called André Mahé, who in 1949 had ridden on to that track I had visited at Roubaix and won Paris-Roubaix. The trouble was that he was sent the wrong way at the entrance to the track grounds and instead of going straight on to the finish stretch found himself riding beneath the grandstand on the road outside.

A crowd hid the true entrance and only a journalist on a motorbike could reach him to shout "Not that way! Not that way!"

By now Mahé had been caught by a few others and they turned awkwardly in the narrow roadway, one of them falling off and breaking a pedal. Those who stayed upright retraced their route and, by now right round on the opposite side of the track, discovered a gateway that led in beside the area of the grandstand occupied by reporters. The survivors made their way round the track and Mahé won the sprint.

When he was in the showers, word came that the man who'd been first in of those who'd ridden the correct way into the track had protested and said that the win should be his because the others had gone the wrong way. It took months of international wrangling and political posturing for both men to be given the victory.

That was in 1949, when I was only two, and I imagined the injustice could still rankle.

André Mahé lives in a village a few kilometres out of town. I had the address and he'd told me on the phone that anyone in the village could direct me. And so, taking him at his word, I killed time with a coffee in the bar in the centre and then told the barman and an elderly man leaning on the counter whom I had come to see.

"Oh, Mahé! Yes, of course I know him," said the customer. He had a rounded back, a sunken face and dark glasses. He used to be the village gendarme, he told me.

"We go back 50 years, him and me, back to when he started coming here from Paris. Tell him bonjour from me. But he's not what he was. Can't hear well, can't see well. Ill, too. But he's a grand propriétaire. A great big place, he's got. You won't see his house because it stands so far back in its own grounds."

I turned right outside the bar, crossed the road that intersects the middle of the village, then took a turning to the left. After a while it dog-legged right and I found the address I wanted right at the end. I pressed the button beside the locked gate but no one answered. Moments later I tried again. Again nothing. And then I heard a voice telling me that "Monsieur Mahé says he's sorry. Our alarm didn't go off. He is just getting dressed."

And a minute or two later, André Mahé came shuffling figure towards me in a vague, slightly distracted manner, opened the gate and gestured me inside. We sat at a low table beside the kitchen, where his wife Jinette was making pancakes and coffee.

André Mahé: "What Coppi did wasn't dignified of a great champion."
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"It's just too stupid to talk about," he said. "There was a break. Serse Coppi attacked. His brother Fausto wanted him to win. I waited a bit and then I caught him and the break. Then I went off by myself.

"People said I should have known the way into the track. But how do you know a thing like that at the end of Paris-Roubaix? A gendarme signalled the way to go and that's the way I went. Of course, the police never apologised afterwards.

"Coppi wanted his brother to have a big victory. He was a great champion, Coppi, but to do what he did wasn't dignified for a champion. A champion should never have stooped that low.

"It marked me, and I still feel marked by it. I was alone. I would have won alone. I had received my bouquet and I was even in the shower when I heard the news. For me, I had won Paris-Roubaix."

Mahé looked sad and said: "Even the French federation interrogated me. I felt like a condemned man. I ended up having to justify myself, though all I'd done was follow the way I'd been directed. In the end, everyone joined in, even the Belgians. And it went to the UCI but there was an election coming up and I think someone wanted to keep the support of the Italians to be elected and so I had to share my victory."

Mahé says he rarely watches the race now. He goes if he's invited and he recently received his mounted cobblestone from Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix, but beyond that neither the race nor the sport interest him much. Too much has changed, for him, for cycling and for Paris-Roubaix.

"There are great riders now and they ride faster. But the racing is less pure. The directors direct them. They talk to them through earpieces. They have calculators to work out what chances a break will have. They have a race radio and even a television to show them what to tell the riders.

"In our day, we had to decide everything ourselves. We had the blackboard man on a motorbike to give us the numbers of the riders in the break, who was chasing, what the gaps were. The rest you had to work out yourself.

"We rode the same bikes as the rest of the season. We didn't need to change them because they were much less rigid than modern bikes. The frames moved all over the place. When I attacked, I could feel the bottom bracket swaying underneath me. On the other hand, we had more cobbles. People talk of the amount of cobbles they have now, but when they've finished them they're back on surfaced roads. No, it's all changed and you can't compare then and now."

When he stopped in 1955, there was no nostalgia, no hankering after the days of glory. He gave his jerseys to those who asked for them and the rest he threw away.

"They were just rags, that's all. The trophies, I gave to the children." We walked to where I had propped my bike. He looked at the pedals - the first clip-on pedals he'd seen - and lifted the handlebars to test the weight.

"That doesn't annoy you, having all that there when you're riding?"' he asked. I said that, yes, but then I wasn't racing. I was cycle-touring. He raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything. A bike for him was for racing, not for pedalling on quiet country roads.

And all that had been a long time ago. Back in his glory years. Except that someone had stolen his glory.

Today's ride: 50 km (31 miles)
Total: 646 km (401 miles)

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